Last February, Cornell University’s LGBTQ student group Direct Action to Stop Heterosexism (DASH) sent a letter to LGBTQ groups at Ivy League schools calling for a boycott of IvyQ. An inter-ivy conference for queer-identifying students, IvyQ hosts approximately 500 students annually, aspiring to a mission of“[creating] a pan-Ivy community of LGBTQ students and allies.” An examination of this microcosm of queer interaction is illuminating because, in many ways, IvyQ acts as a reflection of the greater queer social movement. DASH’s two-pronged criticism of IvyQ reproduces many of the same criticisms that are being directed at larger queer political communities.
DASH’s letter cited the elitism of holding a conference rooted in the academic and economic privilege of Ivy League institutions as one of two motives for its boycott. The open letter’s description of IvyQ as an “old boy’s club” is a bit hyperbolic. A transwoman of color attending the conference is certainly not perpetuating her privilege, and queerness itself seems to stand in direct contrast to any orthodox conception of the Ivy League. However, there are very real issues implicit in their criticism.
The core of DASH’s argument is that IvyQ perpetuates privileges within the marginalized queer community. On the third day of the conference we gathered into small group discussions for lunch. The discussion was titled “Alphabet Soup,” a survey of queer identities and a space to discuss our diversity of experience. However, as we went around the circle of 25 attendees there was a chorus of “He, Him, His. Gay.” Two lesbian females, one bisexual female, a queer female and at least twenty gay—mostly white—men. In a space designated to explore different identities, this homogeneity of identity verged on humorous. If my own observation of the A to A diversity of “Alphabet Soup” is any indication, this criticism holds weight. Looking at demographics, gay men have privilege through numbers at IvyQ. Due to their dominating representation, intended “safe spaces” end up largely occupied by a single identity, potentially ostracizing queer people of color, queer women, trans* people, and other non-conforming gender and sexual identities.
DASH’s second criticism of IvyQ was centered on its “hook-up” culture—that is, an acceptance and encouragement of causal sexual relationships. In very explicit terms, DASH describes IvyQ “as a chance for Ivy League students to fuck each other.” While attendees rarely dispute the existence of this “hook-up culture,” opinions on how and why it functions differs greatly. At one extreme it functions as a “meat-market”: a place where gay white male bodies are valued and objectified over other bodies. Alternatively, others claim the “hook-up culture” creates spaces where non-conforming sexual identities are accepted and explored. It is an affirmation, rather than a rejection, of identity.
Fundamentally, regardless of where one stands on the “hook-up culture,” the controversy is demonstrative of a larger issue. The debate surrounding IvyQ’s “hook-up culture” is reflective of a disagreement over the appropriate role of IvyQ’s “queer space” and the difficulty in accommodating the desires of all queer identities within it. For example, the label queer includes asexual identities in IvyQ’s target population, but they are devalued through IvyQ’s “hook-up culture.” Within IvyQ’s community there is discord over what this space should be used for and who has the power to make those decisions.
The organizers of this fall’s Dartmouth-held conference appeared cognizant and reactive to DASH’s criticisms, diversifying workshops and even including a meta-workshop on the controversy around IvyQ. In the end, despite marginalization of identities at IvyQ and despite DASH’s criticisms, other student groups did not boycott the conference. Many find genuine value in IvyQ’s imperfect space. Therefore, my examination of these criticisms is not intended to validate DASH’s outright dismissal of IvyQ. Even so, these criticisms are significant because they so closely reflect the criticisms of the larger queer political movement.
On February 5th at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference, almost 100 trans* attendees stormed the stage. Prompted by the recent fatal shooting of a transwoman in Denver, the protest demanded “solidarity from the LGBTQ community.” The activist leading the protest called for the inclusion of transgender people in leadership positions of LGBTQ organizations, stating, “If you serve us, you need to include us.”
This demand could easily have been made of the IvyQ leadership—trans* people asking for more programming on trans* issues, asexual attendees arguing for the dismantlement of the “hook-up” culture, bisexual individuals vocalizing their anger that other attendees have labeled their identities “a phase.” Privilege within the marginalized queer community, highlighted in DASH’s criticism of IvyQ, also plagues national queer institutions and political movements through skewed representation.
This troubling fact is further reinforced by the political agenda of the queer movement. Just as IvyQ struggles to find a unified perspective on the conference’s function—illustrated through the debate on the “hook-up” culture—the queer political movement often faces conflicting understandings of its goals and purpose. As the Supreme Court prepares to hear four consolidated cases in a decision that will finally determine the fate of same-sex marriage, there is internal disagreement surrounding this issue in the queer community. Many see the push for same-sex marriage as further evidence of gay male privilege. After all, the prioritization of same sex marriage disregards the arguably more pressing and fundamental rights of the trans* community. A National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report found that 67 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims were transgender women of color and 41 percent of all transgender people surveyed had attempted suicide. In the queer political movement, as at IvyQ, there is difficulty accommodating the needs and perspectives of a multitude of identities.
How is it that the controversy surrounding a largely insular college conference is so strikingly similar to the controversies on the national queer political scene? I would suggest looking at the label queer to understand this issue. An examination of the term queer is fraught with difficulty. Queer’s reappropriation was originally devised in opposition to gender and sexual identity categorization. Therefore, defining it seems almost paradoxical, defeating its original purpose. Despite this history and the variability of its usage, queer is often understood today as encompassing a wide-range of non-conforming identities under one overarching term. The L, G, B, T, Q and + can all fit neatly under the queer umbrella.
University of San Francisco Professor Joshua Gamson has written an article on queer communities in which he explores the complications and limitations of the queer label’s new direction. As Gamson writes, “fixed identity categories are both the basis for oppression and the basis for political power.” The term queer encompasses a vast variety of experiences, and many nuances of sexuality and gender. For example, an Ivy League conference termed IvyGay or IvyLGBT would exclude many identities like genderqueer and asexual. The queer label works as an inclusive broadening, but in turn makes it difficult to form a cohesive community by forcing vastly different and possibly contradictory experiences under the same label.
When looking at the politically oriented organization of queer communities, this dilemma is exacerbated. The political power of the queer movement necessitates an amalgamation of different identities. Alone, these identities stand to have little political clout; only united do they have a chance to effect true political reform, a fact that holds especially true for the underrepresented identity categories. However, a cohesive community is rarely the product of this amalgamation; it instead results in almost inevitable internal disputes. Incorporation of these diverse identities into the umbrella term queer, as Gamson explains, can be “oppressive,” because it fundamentally serves as a homogenization of different and clashing experiences.
The controversy surrounding IvyQ is ultimately a reflection of this larger queer dilemma. The similarities between the IvyQ conference and the National LGBTQ Task Force conference are not coincidental. Events at a 500-person Ivy League conference in November echo the events at a 40,000-person national conference this month because both are manifestations of an inherent issue in queerness—an identity category formed through the incorporation of multiple identities. Ultimately, the identities that fall under the label of queer must decide whether the protection that this umbrella provides is a political necessity, even if it comes at the cost of internal division.